Guided Tour

Bringing Chinese Music to Europe. The Story of Karl Kambra (arr.), Two Original Chinese Folk Songs (c. 1796)

This is an object lesson in how music was transmitted from China to Europe. The sheet music, Two Original Chinese Songs, published in London, c. 1796, includes two transcriptions of music sung in China. One of them, Mulihua (tranliterated here as Moo-Lee-Chwa), is one of the most beloved songs in Chinese culture--in contemporary China it is sometimes treated as an unofficial national anthem. This transcription is one of the first of this song to reach Europe. In this close examination of the printed book, as a material object, we extract the whole history of the transmission of music from China to Europe from the details of this unassuming object.


The arrangement of "Two Original Chinese Songs," dating from circa 1796, is an unassuming publication of sheet music, one among many from its time. Neither the book nor the harmonized tune it contains were meant to be everlasting: they are musical commodities, made specifically for consumption, and very much products of their time. As such, it is the kind of thing that rarely captures our attention and that consequently survives relatively rarely. In fact, it is only on close inspection that the book reveals its many hidden riches. Once we become attuned to its details, we will discover that it contains no less than a microcosm of the early history of the cultural relationship between Europe and China. While the transcriptions include two songs, we will focus here on "Jasmine Flower" (Mo Li Hua 茉莉花). Western listeners will recognize this melody from Puccini‘s opera Turandot, whereas in Chinese culture continues to be one of the most beloved songs to this day.


Sarah Adams and Alexander Rehding on Karl Kambra's "Two Original Chinese Songs" on Vimeo.


Where would you like to open the book?

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View Harmonization

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